Not even 12 hours into the annual campout for Big Blue Madness tickets, approximately 680 tents have popped up around Memorial Coliseum.
The 3:30 p.m. Wednesday count is up about 30 from this morning and 10 behind the pace of last year's record-setting campout. The majority of the new tents are on Stoll Field. That's also where most new campers will set up before our next count on Thursday morning. Last year, more than 60 new tents were set up on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
More is in store leading up to Saturday morning's ticket distribution, but UK fans were treated to visits by John Calipari and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Thursday.
Fans wait to set up tents at the 2014 Big Blue Madness campout on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The record is in danger yet again.
The annual campout for tickets to Big Blue Madness began at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Just four-and-a-half hours later, approximately 650 tents had surrounded Memorial Coliseum. The 9:30 a.m. count matches last year's record-setting pace exactly. The final tent count for the 2013 was 755.
Tent City was mostly calm during the Wednesday count, with many campers getting some much-needed rest after an early-morning wake-up call. That figures to change in the coming days with a pleasant weather forecast and visits in store from a number of UK teams and coaches. The first will be from John Calipari, who will tour the campout at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to give away dozens of Tempur-Pedic pillows and a mattress to one lucky fan.
Those who were awake were eager to talk. Passing through the annual campout with pen and paper, it doesn't long for fans to figure out I'm counting tents, which always leads to a conversation. I typically end the conversation by telling fans to have a good day. One response to that, in particular, struck me.
"Can't beat this day," a fan said.
The Big Blue Madness campout, truly, has taken on a life of its own.
UK fan Kelly Melton isn't shy about wanting to "kick cancer in the butt" and several current and former UK student-athletes and coaches are helping him do just that.
Former Kentucky basketball star Nerlens Noel and current football kicker Max Strong have teamed up with others to start a "Kickin it 4 Kelly" Cancer Fund. The goal is to raise $100,000 for Kelly and the Melton family as the youngster battles Leukemia.
Kelly and Strong got creative to find ways for UK players and coaches to help raise money, starting a whip cream challenge. Kelly challenged several UK student-athletes and coaches, including UK football head coach Mark Stoops.
Stoops, along with several members of the UK football team accepted the challenge after Tuesday's football practice, which can be seen at the video below.
Mark Stoops made it clear after Saturday's loss at Florida that he wasn't satisfied.
He was proud of his team's effort in the triple-overtime defeat, sure, but he knew there was work ahead.
Three days later, the Wildcats are taking the same approach.
"Attitude's good," Stoops said. "I thought the players really took it to heart, really looked at the film, were very critical of themselves and looked at all areas where we all can improve."
During practice on Tuesday -- the second of this bye week -- the Cats spent time on fundamentals, correcting mistakes from the Florida game and getting a head start on preparation for Vanderbilt. Though the Cats have been appropriately hard on themselves, they're also carrying confidence built on Saturday.
"I think each step, each time you get closer and closer, they believe more and more," Stoops said. "And I think most of them listen to you on Monday and I talked about that going into the game: Let's not come in here and say, 'Boy, that was close. Good effort.' Because we're not satisfied with that. I think each time you get closer and closer you put yourself in positions like that and we keep on working and fundamentally getting better, the next time we get that opportunity we'll win."
Because of the bye week, that next opportunity won't come for another seven days. Stoops would rather not wait for Sept. 27.
"If it was up to me, I think I'd love to go play," Stoops said. "Guys are in good spirits. We have a lot left in our tank. We got a lot more we can do, a lot better things and we're excited to go to work. I wish we were playing, but we'll deal with it the way it is."
On a positive note, the Cats will have an opportunity to recover from nagging injuries. Braylon Heard and Javess Blue, for example, played at less than full speed at Florida with ankle injuries, but they should be back for Vandy and Stoops said UK will be "close to a hundred percent" as a team.
The bye week also affords an opportunity for players the coaching staff is planning to redshirt to see more time in practice.
"Got some of our younger guys a lot of work that are potential redshirts," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Drew (Barker) got a bunch of work today. Thaddeus Snodgrass got a bunch of work. T.V. (Williams), who didn't play as much in the last game, got him a lot of work."
All that's important, but the priority is to get ready for the next test.
"You get guys healthy and stuff, but it's essential we treat this week as a week to definitely improve fundamentally," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Vanderbilt's a good team. They went down to Florida last year and beat the crap out of them, so they're tough. Same front seven last year who gave us a hard time last year are back. We can't afford to take anybody lightly, so we're excited about getting prepared for Vandy like we did today and we'll be ready to next Saturday."
Two days before Kentucky's first road test of the season at Florida, the Wildcats had a light Thursday with a walkthrough and positional meetings.
"Players are focused and we're excited to get on that plane tomorrow," Stoops said. "We got one more run-through tomorrow. We'll have about a 45-minute to an hour practice tomorrow and then we'll get on that bus and load up and head to Gainesville. So putting the finishing touches on a good week."
Returning to practice were running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue. Though they were limited, the two playmakers will be on the flight down to Florida Friday afternoon.
"They were out there a little bit, so we'll see," Stoops said. "Yeah, they're going to make the trip. We'll get something out of them."
Zach West, on the other hand, has been ruled out for Saturday. With the starter at left guard out with a neck injury, Cole Mosier will step in. A week after the Wildcats allowed five sacks to Ohio, Stoops knows they will need to be better against an athletic Gator defensive front.
"We've got to play well," Stoops said. "We've got to do what we do and that's get rid of the football quick when we can, make good decisions. We've got to protect and have all 11 guys on the same page, so. We've worked hard and we'll go down there and they'll play well. They'll improve."
UK is facing its first Southeastern Conference test this weekend and dealing the natural boost that follows.
That doesn't mean the Wildcats are shifting their practice habits with Florida looming on Saturday.
"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys seemed to be energetic, flying around, excited. It's just a typical Wednesday, so things went well."
For UK, that means a combination of team and scout work, the second of which being of particular importance given the Gators' change in offensive style this season.
Under former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, Florida has moved to a spread attack that plays at a pace similar to what the UK defense has dealt with in practice all fall camp and through the first two weeks of the season.
"They're a spread offense now," Eliot said. "Last year they were mainly a pro-style offense with some spread looks. And now they are a spread offense with a few pro looks."
Their opener declared a no contest due to inclement weather, the Gators have only played one game this season, a 65-0 thrashing of Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Florida racked up 655 yards on 86 plays in the win, throwing 47 times.
That means it will be all hands on deck for a UK defense playing a different style as well, though due to changes in personnel more than system. With Avery Williamson and his 102 tackles now in the NFL and UK rotating much more freely at linebacker, 16 Wildcats have four or more tackles, led by A.J. Stamps' 14.
That's just fine with Eliot.
"We're not concerned about who makes the play," Eliot said. "It's just that they're made. I would like to see a defense that all those plays are spread out amongst a lot of players."